About 15 years ago, there was a magazine article that caught my attention. It was of a 16 month old boy being lifted in the air by his father, who has become a father later in life. The headline read “A Letter to My Son”. It was written by a well-known American author named Tim O’Brien. In in this open letter, the author bares his heart and soul about how his son has changed him. He writes Dear Timmy – a little more than a year ago, June 20, 2003, you dropped into the world, my son, my first and only child – a surprise, a gift, a miracle, an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a joy, a pain… a thrill in the heart, all the platitudes with a big red cherry on top. Here’s the truth: Boy oh boy do I love you. He continues on telling Timmy that because he is already older than the traditional age of a father, that when Timmy grows up, he will know him as an “old man” and that he wants his son to know who he was – or as he puts it And by that I mean not just the graying old coot you may vaguely remember, but the guy who shares your name and your blood and your DNA, the human essence, the Tim who himself was once a Timmy.
He starts going through what he Hopes for his son I hope that I’m there to watch you pick up [one of the good books around the house] and turn that first precious page. I yearn to see the rapture on your face (right now you eat books). I yearn to learn from you. I want to be your teacher, yes, but I also want to be your student. I yearn to be taught again and again what I’ve already started to know: that a grown man can find pleasure in the sound of a happy squeal, in a gap-toothed grin, in the miraculous utterance of the word “Daddy.” I yearn to watch you perform acts of kindness and generosity. I yearn to witness your first act of moral courage. Very movingly, he speaks words of concern that a father has for a son of the trials and difficulties he will face as he continues to grow up before him. He realizes how it might have been easier in a sense to become a father at 28 or 38, but how much more he appreciates and tolerates the idiosyncrasies of a newborn in his midst.
But the love he has experienced now has changed him. He tells his son Until the late afternoon of June 20, 2003, I had defined myself, for better or for worse by the novels and stories I had written. I had sought myself in sentences, I had loved myself only insofar as I loved a chapter or a scene or a scrap of dialogue. That said, I would trade every syllable of my life’s work for an extra 5 or 10 years with you, whatever the going rate might be. A father’s chief duty is not to instruct or disciple, A father’s chief duty is to be present. And I yearn to be with you forever, always present, even knowing that cannot and will not happen.
He finishes by telling his son that he toddled over to him that morning and laughed and gave him his first unsolicited hug; that moments earlier Timmy hit the delete key and started to erase sentences of the letter as the father approached the end of the letter, and Tim O Brien concludes you’re on my lap now, my spectacular Timmy. I’m using your fingers to type these words – I Love You – Dad.
This accomplished writer & author a somewhat self-important man, who sees the cynicism and ego of a career driven life fade away before him and he is reduced to humble awe as a man, a father who is at once filled with hope for the future – hope that he has seen in his son’s eyes.
Today we as Catholics celebrate another earthly father who’s hope is transformed by his Son. We celebrate St. Joseph – the foster father of Jesus Christ. St. Joseph was a man of Hope. That conviction that St. Joseph was a man of hope isn’t because of any lofty words that he said (he’s not on record for saying anything in the gospels). It’s tied simply and profoundly because he was Jesus’ step-father. Parents can probably relate to Tim O’Brien’s letter – where every parent, thinks their child is God’s gift to the world (and there’s a lot of truth to that). In the case of St. Joseph – he was 100% right. But whenever you are in the presence of a newborn, there’s this sense of having this incredibly intimate encounter with the living God, and I think only after we’ve had an encounter with the living God can the prospect of hope awaken within our hearts; and when we’ve welcomed Jesus into our hearts, into our lives, that Hope becomes real for us.
Because Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological father – the giftedness was that much more pronounced. He was chosen to be present to his son in those early years. And the man who had defined himself up until the first Christmas – that first, crazy, Christmas where the poor guy couldn’t catch one break – from Inn keepers, to fellow travelers, to ending up in a cave where his wife Mary gives birth – well at that first Christmas he ceased defining himself as a carpenter and instead he would be forever defined as the Spouse of the Mother of God, the Chaste guardian of the Virgin Mary the Foster father of the Son of God, the Diligent protector of Christ, the Head of the Holy Family.
The child Jesus learned many things of earthly importance to him – the ways of the world as a just, strong, obedient man; what it meant to be a faithful Jew as one of David’s offspring; how to be a carpenter… But Joseph learned many things from Jesus, the child who came to bring God’s message of Life, and Love and Hope to the world in a new and utterly amazing way.
That’s the reason we as Catholics admire St .Joseph so much – because of his intimate relationship with Jesus as his earthly father. If it were not for that, Joseph would have remained a good guy, one of countless other good carpenters who become unknown, un remembered as decades pass. But because Joseph was privileged to be the step father to Jesus’, he looked at his young son, and all the dreams and desires he had for himself and his wife faded in the beauty of a new-born son’s face. He began to dream and hope what his son would be. Not the great carpenter he probably at one time had hoped for, but rather how his Son would bring God’s long promised, long awaited Hope to reality. Dying before Jesus’ ministry would begin, Joseph was able to gain that Hope from his Son simply by being present to Jesus.
In these challenging times, St. Joseph is reminding us as we are looking for light, as we are looking for comfort, as we are looking for Hope, we find those in welcoming Jesus, reaching out to Jesus, being present to Jesus.